Dads, Daughters, and Differentiation

Love that reflects the love of God is trinitarian love. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have unique roles in the Godhead and testify to each other in perfect unity – there is no jealousy, envy, or selfish ambition between them. When Paul wrote that love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs (1 Corinthian 13:4-5, CSB) he was articulating reflections of trinitarian love that we can embody here on earth. 

Differentiation Defined

Too often the ways children are different from their parents cause confusion and pain instead of leading us toward interdependence and deeper understanding. Differentiation is the process of recognizing, sharing, appreciating, and celebrating your differences. The health and vibrancy of our human relationships is dependent on differentiating well, reflecting trinitarian-like love. 

How well or poorly a parent differentiates can often be easily recognized. For example, a teenage daughter might desire to try out for a role in the upcoming play and is surprised her mother has a hard time supporting her. Her mom doesn’t tell her that when she was in high school, her three good friends got roles in the school play when she didn’t, leading to broken friendships that never mended. Mom’s painful past gets projected into her daughter’s present because Mom hasn’t separated her life from her daughter’s. 

One of the hardest things to do as a parent is to separate your childhood from your child’s. When you see your child’s life through your own experiences, you miss connecting with the child herself. The closer the relationship, the harder it is to differentiate, and the closeness of the parent-child relationship makes differentiation difficult. So much of our deep longing comes out in parenting. We naturally want our children to love what we love. Whether it is our favorite food or our love of reading, there is something special about our children loving what we love. 

However, when we love others because they enjoy what we enjoy, that is not love. When parents move through difficulty and selfishness to meet our children where they are, that is love. Experiencing togetherness with someone because you are the same does not require the faith and support from the Lord that differentiating does. This is why God loves differentiating: because we need his help to do it. 

Dads and Daughters

Differentiation has significant implications in the father-daughter relationship. Children desire affirmation from and attachment to their parents and will go to great lengths to maintain closeness even at great cost. Young children are hungry for attachment because they lack self-sufficiency and are highly dependent on parents for caretaking. When a parent is too preoccupied with their own needs and not able to respond well to their child, that child will often adapt to what the parent wants to maintain attachment. This starts early for many children. Often children spend considerable energy adapting themselves to please their parents. 

To the degree a dad recognizes his daughter’s tendency to try to please him at her own expense and works against it, to that degree a daughter will feel accepted and known by him.    

One study on father-daughter attachment and communication demonstrated that girls who suffered from depression were more likely to describe feelings of rejection and neglect from their fathers. (1) Their sense of attachment to their fathers came with a lack of warmth and a sense of distance. Where daughters experienced their fathers as available and felt welcomed and comforted, they were less likely to experience depression. In addition, where fathers agreed that there was poor communication with their daughters, they did not identify with the coldness or detachment their daughters experienced in the relationship. Where daughters were experiencing depression that may have been related to their relationship with their fathers, the fathers did not even recognize difficulties in the relationship. 

A father must recognize he is raising an “other.” Each daughter has a unique personality and desires that will naturally be different from their father’s. For example: one of the ways I connected with my own dad was through sports. We played basketball and went running together. I looked forward to doing this type of thing with my daughters. Although my girls played some rec sports, none of them were passionate about it and it is not something we shared when they were growing up. 

I had to personally experience the loss of connection over sports to be more present to and supportive of the activities my girls did participate in. By God’s grace, one of my happiest and proudest moments as a dad was watching my two older daughters march in the Macy’s Day Parade as part of their high school marching band. Personally, I was not musical. I took clarinet lessons for about 3 weeks and guitar lessons for about two months and that was the extent of my musical involvement growing up. I needed the Lord’s help to surrender what I loved (sports) to grow into someone who could enjoy what my daughters loved (music). 

Helping Our Daughters Relate to Men

Accepting and enjoying our daughters for who they are, rather than requiring them to adapt to please us, is particularly helpful as daughters learn to relate to boys, and then to men. Women are more likely to experience harassment in dating. (2) I would suggest this is because men tend to compartmentalize relationships more easily, but find it harder to discuss topics with charged emotional content. This often means women are not experiencing the emotional connection they desire. Although this is changing in our culture, too often women have been expected to give men what they want at the expense of the emotional and relational closeness women long for. As a result, women often feel like they give too much of themselves in relationships with men. 

To work against this tendency, I wanted my daughters to experience me as willing to work at our relationship. I attempted to push through my relational selfishness and give more to my daughters. I wanted them to be for them a man who was willing to recognize, share, and appreciate their differences, an experience I hoped would be part of their relational world, whether in friendship, dating, or married life. It is normal and beneficial for men to work in their relationships; I wanted my daughters to experience that in our relationship so that desire was on the surface of their heart as they became young adults and began interacting more meaningfully with men. 

The goal in any close relationship is differentiation that is humble and other-centered. When dads work to build this with their daughters, they are helping their daughters gain the invaluable experience of having their individuality nurtured and affirmed. We teach with words of relational connection and actions of sacrifice. When our daughters receive both in relationship with their dad, it can help to form them in good and lasting ways.  

We can never really escape the implications of the gospel and those implications show up most clearly in our closest relationships. The Lord desires cleanliness in the innermost parts (Ps. 51:6) and we are not capable of seeing our hearts clearly or cleaning them out well. Only as closeness with our daughters reveals our need for God and invites us toward vulnerability with God can we change. 

As our lack of love is exposed and we thirst for God to do in us what we can’t do in ourselves, we move toward being fathers who demonstrate differentiation in the way we love our daughters. As fathers experience reconciliation with God, it gives us a secure platform to step toward our daughters and love them with the same love they have received from God.  

Parents, join us at Rooted 2023 for wonderful worship and encouragement to rest in the gospel.


(1)   Demidenko, N., Manion, I., & Lee, C. M. (2015). Father–Daughter attachment and communication in depressed and nondepressed adolescent girls. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24(6), 1727-1734. doi:10.1007/s10826-014-9976-6

(2)   Barraso, A. (2020). Key takeaways on Americans’ views of and experiences with dating and relationships. Pew Research Center. Accessed June 26, 2023.